‘I feel good, vibrant and very grateful that I get another chance in life’: Desiree Winkel after surviving the Himalayas

‘I feel good, vibrant and very grateful that I get another chance in life’: Desiree Winkel after surviving the Himalayas

Sport aficionados all over Sint Maarten and readers of The Daily Herald’s “Special Editions” will be familiar with the ongoing 7-summit project by Desiree Winkel, professional fitness coach and mountaineer.

In April, Desiree flew to Nepal to conquer two summits, both over 6,000 metres high, and experienced extreme highs and lows within a short time. Pushing her physical boundaries to the limit, she successfully climbed Mera Peak – her highest mountain ever. However, despite endless training for enduring the high altitudes, she became severely ill before she could make it to the second summit.

Battling extreme fatigue and blistering cold, Desiree needed to walk for hours in the desolation of the Himalayan terrain before being able to access help. Thankful for her guide Ngima and a new chance at life, Desiree has been steadily working on recovery and can happily report that she feels well once again. She has a positive outlook on the future, and does not plan to stop pursuing her passion for mountaineering.

First, let’s address the great accomplishment of getting to the first of two summits in Nepal. What was the journey like, and how did it feel to reach the summit?

Travelling from St. Maarten to Nepal was quite challenging; it’s a long journey that takes an average of 42 hours. This, while knowing I would only be staying for one day in Kathmandu before starting our expedition.

Staying in the Thamel area of Kathmandu always gives me the feeling of a city that never sleeps – abuzz with cars, scooters and rickshaws. I knew the noise would be a thing of the past when I arrived in the mountains. This time, we had to go to another place, driving four hours in a jeep to get to a small airport where we would take the helicopter to go to Lukla (2,850 metres above sea level).

The trek to the base- and high camps of Mera Peak is quite intense: It takes six days of hiking to get to the high camp at 5,800 metres, from the base camp at 2,850 metres. Most people think the hiking only entails going up, which is not true – and going up and down all the time really makes it hard. There were also times where we had to hike/climb more than 500 metres, straight up.

In the middle of the freezing cold night on April 29, we started our climb from 5,800 metres to 6,476 metres up to the summit of Mera Peak. The mountain on its own is not very technical; however, the altitude makes it really difficult to breathe.

Standing on the summit of Mera, I could see Mount Everest behind me – a beautiful sight – but it was so cold and windy that we could only stay for a couple of minutes before we had to go down again.

When did it become apparent that something was not right? Please tell us more about your guide, who brought you to safety.

This happened while walking back from high camp – two days into our way to the next mountain I was supposed to climb. I was hiking with my guide Ngima, with whom I also climbed Nepal’s Island Peak back in 2021. We both started to notice that I was becoming slower and slower. My face had already started swelling up in a strange way since two days prior. I started to have breathing issues, as we were making our way to a small mountain cabin. At a certain point, I took one step and was completely out of breath. It’s normal to be a bit out of breath in the mountains, because you have about 45% of the oxygen you would normally have at sea level.

As I was getting worse, I also started to get hypothermia. Ngima tried to contact the rescue helicopter on his satellite phone... It was getting late, so we had to act fast.

Unfortunately, the helicopter was not able to find us, so we had to pack our things and walk for hours and hours to the first little camp we could find. We walked the whole night while feeling so cold and still not able to get to a helicopter. My coughing went from bad to worse, and I felt sicker and sicker. No matter what, I could not manage to warm up.

Finally, the helicopter arrived in the early hours of the next morning and brought me to the nearest hospital, in Lukla. However, they couldn’t do the necessary tests there and transferred me, with oxygen, via helicopter to Kathmandu.

How was the beginning of the recovery process, while you were still in Nepal?

While still in Nepal, they found fluid in my lungs, and a pulmonary embolism. The hospital was extremely good, and treated me great. I had to leave after seven days of hospitalisation, but I was not able to fly home yet – I had to wait three weeks before being able to do that.

At first, I was very much afraid that I would go to sleep and not wake up. It felt like such a long time, being there by myself, without having the purpose of climbing. However, one thing was clear to me: No matter what happened, I would climb again.

What have you enjoyed doing, outside of work, since you got back?

In Nepal, I went to a yoga meditation retreat. I knew that if I worked on my mindset and learned to accept the issue, I would be able to heal much faster. So that is what I did. I decided to start my fitness regimen right after I came back, on May 25. Now, weeks later, I feel like I have been reborn. I feel much better and it’s hardly noticeable that I was so ill just weeks ago.

In terms of your work-life and fitness, what, if anything, has changed since you got back?

Nothing has changed. I picked up my normal life again. However, I’ll need to take blood thinners for the rest of my life.

Do you still plan to continue with the 7-summit project?

Yes, I do. If everything stays the same, or gets even better, I am planning my 7th summit for upcoming January. This time, it will be in Peru again. I feel good, vibrant and very grateful that I get another chance at life.

Follow Desiree on Instagram (@ fitness_desiree_winkel)

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